16. “Wichita Lineman” (1968) is the second song on this list written by Jimmy Webb (By the Time I Get to Phoenix). Much of the credit goes to the strength of the Glen Campbell recordings. This should tell you a lot about the talent of these two individuals. After the success of Campbell’s cover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1967 he wanted Webb to write him a similar song, one with the same type of time and place reference. A simple enough task if you are as talented as Jimmy Webb, so based on a drive he took through rural Oklahoma where he saw the solitary workers on utility poles he created this amazing and evocative story. It was missing just a couple things when he sent it to Campbell who then worked his guitar magic, plus some creative contributions from his producer/arranger Al De Lory. Throw in some more great guitar from fellow Wrecking Crew member Carol Kaye and you end up with this remarkable song. In 1968 it charted #1 on the Country chart and US Adult Contemporary in the US, #1 on two charts in Canada as well. It hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song won Record of the Year at the Grammys in 1968 and Campbell won Best Contemporary-Pop Vocal Performance, Male. I find it a bit odd the song didn’t win at the Country Music Association Awards or Academy of Country Music awards but Campbell did win Male Vocalist at both and shared Best Album for Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell at the latter. I really should get around to dedicating a post to Jimmy Webb, he has had at least 10 songs hit the Billboard Top 10 charts. There are at least 301 versions of this song.
17. “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955) is a song written and performed by Johnny Cash. He is another with two songs on the Top 20 list. However, Johnny can’t take full credit for the creation of this now legendary song. He borrows heavily in fact from a song in “The Conductor” on the album Seven Dreams written by Gordon Jenkins. The train themed album contains a song within a song titled “Crescent City Blues” and sung by Jenkins wife, Beverly Mahr. If you give it a listen it draws a bit of a shocking comparison. In turn the melody of the song was taken by Jenkins from an instrumental song, coincidentally titled “Crescent City Blues” written in the 1930’s by the New Orleans/Chicago Blues artist known as Little Brother Montgomery. Cash heard Beverly Mahr on a record while in Germany when he was with the US Air Force, this was in 1951, before he became a recording artist. Cash had wanted Jenkins acknowledged on the song credits for the 1955 song but was assured by Sam Phillips there were no issues. Jenkins would later sue and Johnny paid him $75.000 dollars, presumably in Cash.
Regardless of the journey it is one special performance by Johnny Cash and one of the greatest songs in Music. Most well known for the live recording from Folsom Prison, and the album At Folsom from 1968. The original charted #4 in 1956 on the Billboard Country chart, as well as #4 and #5 on the the Pop charts. The live version hit #1 in both Canada and the US on the Country Chart. The song, including instrumentals and vocals in six languages has 300 versions.
18. “Wabash Cannonball” here we have another train song and the journey is no less circuitous in nature. It has been traced back to story’s of train riding hobos in the mid 1800’s. In 1882 J.A. Rolf published a song named “The Great Rock Island Route!!”. Then in 1904 William Kindt published an instrumental song “Wabash Cannonball” using the same melody and we don’t really know who wrote the revised lyrics. This has strong roots as an American Folk song and as many were, it was adopted by the Country genre. A.P. Carter of the legendary family had registered the song as his own when they recorded it 1932, but he did not write it. Before the Carter Family recorded the song it was first done by a popular Country Singer and Radio Host, Hugh Cross in 1929. The third time’s the charm as is often said so when Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseans (vocals by Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher) released it in 1938 it became one of the biggest selling records of all time reaching the 10 million copies mark. You can hear many live performances where Roy Acuff himself is singing but to the best of my knowledge he never recorded the song in his own voice. Roy Acuff Jr. released a version in 1965.
To say that everybody in Country Music has done this song, which including adaptations now has 283 documented versions, is not overstating things. I mean there are five Hanks alone, Williams Jr. , Snow, Thompson, Lochlin and Smith! We also have Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Bill Monroe, even The Secret Sisters did it in 2010 but don’t tell anyone you heard it from me. Folk legend Pete Seeger did it, Woody Guthrie adapted the tune for his song “Grand Coulee Dam” as did Chuck Berry for “Promised Land”. Not surprising that a song about trains is so well traveled. Stay with me folks I have more puns in the caboose!
19. “Oh Lonesome Me” was written by Don Gibson, yet another name to appear twice in the Top 20 as his “I Can’t Stop Loving You” placed #5. Both songs were released at the same time (December 1957) and “Oh Lonesome Me” was the ‘A’ side of the single and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” the ‘B’ side. with backing vocals by The Jordanaires. However it was the ‘A’ side that hit #1 on the Country Chart and #7 on the Pop chart. Ray Charles as he did with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” would record “Oh Lonesome Me” and another Gibson song “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles”. The Kentucky Headhunters would hit #8 on the Hot 100 Country chart with “Oh Lonesome Me”.
If you look up unrequited love in the dictionary you would find this forlorn tune that is a Country Standard and another song that has been covered by just about everyone in Country Music, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray and Tanya Tucker to name just a few. Outside of Country there are renditions by Paul Anka, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby and Connie Stevens. Currently there are 281 versions of this song.
20. “Me and Bobby McGee” was written by Kris Kristofferson with a credit given to Fred Foster as his suggestion led to the writing of the song. Kristofferson is another person to have two songs on this list. The first of many Country chart appearances was the 1969 original by Roger Miller, reaching #3 in Canada and #12 in the US, Gordon Lightfoot hit #1 in Canada and #7 on the Pop chart and Jerry Lee Lewis with his 1971 release charted #1 and #40 on the Hot 100. There are currently 279 versions of this song, including Kristofferson himself in 1970, one of thirteen to be released that year. So it was a popular song. If you think that sounds like a lot there were 27 versions released in 1971. While most covers of the song are done in the County style or maybe a little more on the Folk side. The most memorable rendition of the song was the first of that stream of covers in 1971, and it was neither Country or Folk.
Janis Joplin recorded “Me and Bobby McGee” during the sessions for the 10 track album that was later named Pearl, which was her nickname. Janis would die from a drug overdose just three days after these recordings, October 4, 1970. The album and the single of this song were released in January of 1971. Both the song and the album would hit #1 on Billboard, it was her only top 40 song. The memorable and original song “Mercedes Benz” was also on the album but it did not chart. If you have heard the song you know that what she did with it was exceptional. It’s done with a breath of Country and quickly steps into an uptempo Blues song. If you have not listened you are missing out, click that link!
That’s the list, it was quite remarkable that so many names appear more than once. Hank Williams, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell, Don Gibson, Johnny Cash and once as a writer and once as a key performer we have Willie Nelson. However it is quite the contrast to the list for Pop Songs, where The Beatles dominate.
What is glaringly missing from both of these lists (Pop and Country) with 20 songs combined are ones written and or originally recorded by Women. I have to acknowledge Hedy West and her song “500 Miles’ that contributed to getting “I’m Nine Hundred Miles From Home” to #7. On the Pop Top 20 Songs we have only one entry by a women with Billie Holiday for “God Bless the Child”. However, in order to feature more of those amazing songs from women I have to work quite a ways down the lists. The first I came across for Country artists was (not surprisingly) Dolly Parton with a song covered 249 times, which by any standard is an impressive number.
I’m working on a post that will feature the most covered songs either written and or originally recorded by women. Here is a teaser from that post and the obvious answer as to which Dolly Parton song tops the list.
“I Will Always Love You” was written by Parton and released as a single in March of 1974, as most will know it hit #1 on the Country Chart that year and a re-recording hit #1 again in 1982. In 1995 her duet with Vince Gill charted at #15. To my knowledge no other song has achieved this before or since. If that was not enough there are likely very few people on the planet over 35 years of age that don’t know Whitney Houston’s 1992 version for the movie The Bodyguard. It was a worldwide smash #1 hit song making it the only song to hit #1 on a Billboard chart three separate times. Whitney’s version became one of the few songs to re-enter the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 as after her passing in 2012 the song would peak at #3. This makes the song the only one to have not only the three #1 Billboard appearances but if you add her #53 showing on the Hot 100 for her 1982 version that is a total of six chart appearances, three on the Country and two on the Pop chart.
11. “Ring of Fire” was first recorded by Anita Carter and was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. Recorded in late 1962 it appeared on Anita Carter Sings Folk Songs Old and New that came out in December. It was released as a single early in 1963. The original title is “(Love’s) Ring of Fire”, and I think it should be noted that Anita was a bona fide recording artist with several charted songs, outside of her work with the Legendary Carter Family. Johnny’s ex-wife Vivian had stated that it was Johnny that wrote the song and gave songwriting credit to June and allowed Anita to record it first. June Carter however had a completely different story and provides a solid background as to how she came up with the song.
Johnny held back on releasing the song until it was clear Anita’s effort was not going to be a hit and in fact it did not chart at all. Cash had a dream about adding what he referred to as “Mexican style trumpets” to the music. Johnny Cash (link with lyrics) recorded it April 19, 1963 and it went to #1 on the Hot 100 Country singles chart for the week ending July 27 and stayed there for seven weeks. It also reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. Classic Cash with a dynamic take on the song. There are currently 325 versions of this song. To my knowledge the only Country version to chart was Alan Jackson at #45 in 2010. Eric Burdon and The Animals charted in Europe, South Africa and Australia in 1969. Personally I’m partial to Dwight Yoakam’s take that originally appeared on an EP in 1984 but was a key part of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. reaching #1 on the Country Album chart in 1986. This song is still recorded a few times every year and it is in nine different languages, there are a few dozen instrumentals as well.
12. “Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver of course, it was co-written with Bill Danoff (Afternoon Delight) and his wife and fellow member of the Starland Vocal Band, Taffy Nivert. In truth Danoff was the one who came up with the core lyrics, based on his own personal experiences. Released as a single in May 1971 it would peak at #1 on Cashbox and #2 on Billboard in the US and #5 on the UK singles chart. Denver was a burgeoning Folk artist and the song was received as more of a Folk Pop song as it only reached #50 on the Country Hot 100. However, with the very first covers by Superstars Loretta Lynn and Lynn Anderson, other Country stars would follow such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Statler Brothers, The Carter Family, The Mercey Brothers and Skeeter Davis all within two years of the original. It is one of many songs that straddle genres. I think if you asked most people they would say its a Country Song, and the vast majority of artists doing it are from the Country genre.
There 330 versions of the song and it was covered nine times in the first year. In 1972 Olivia Newton John (a hit in the UK in 1973) did her version, one of 23 recorded that year. Rarely have I seen that many renditions of a song done in one year. No song of course is in the stratosphere of “Yesterday” that clocked 64 versions in 1966. As noted above, joining John in 1972 were Ray Charles (who did many Country songs), Toots and the Maytals did a modified Reggae take on the song and Felicia from Hong Kong had a version on her album of cover songs. The original song title was actually Rhododendron which is the State flower of West Virginia, where it is one of four official State songs.
13. “Green, Green Grass of Home” was written by the brilliant Curly Putnam. If you don’t know the name, he was the inspiration for the Paul McCartney song “Junior’s Farm” after he and Linda wrote it during a stay at his farm in Tennessee in 1974. Putnam has written or co-written too many songs to list but some of the more notable are; “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” a huge hit for Tammy Wynette and he wrote one for her (sometimes) husband George Jones “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, as well as hits for Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Tanya Tucker. There are currently 327 versions.
It was done very well when originally recorded by Country singer Johnny Darrell in 1965 and first covered by one of the biggest stars of that time, Porter Wagoner. However it was the next version by Jerry Lee Lewis that inspired Tom Jones to record it becoming a smash hit reaching #1 in the UK, Ireland, Norway and Australia and #11 in the US.
14. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is the third Hank Williams song on this Top 20 list and his second most recorded song with 303 versions. Hank recorded it in late 1952 and it was released as a single on the ‘B’ side to “Kaw-Liga”. Hank Williams died at age 29 on January 1, 1953. Both songs were released shortly after his death, they would be his 8th and 9th #1 songs. Williams, just before his death had been wracked with pain following a failed operation to correct his spina bifida. This only fueled his drinking and after being prescribed morphine for his pain he now developed a drug addiction. All this and more was combined with his recent divorce from Audrey Sheppard, so he poured out all his hurt in the words of the song.
This, like so many of his songs paints a vivid picture and so many are autobiographical in nature, representing the struggles he had with pain, addiction, loneliness, love and loss. It is little wonder that he is the most covered Country Artist of all time and on the top 10 list of most covered singer/songwriters. When we look at the list of covers for this song we once again find Ray Charles who if you recall took Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” to #1 from his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music where he also did Williams songs. Charles version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” went to #23 on the R&B and #29 on the Hot 100 and #13 on the UK charts that same year, this was from his follow-up album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 2. The song also charted twice in 1953 on the Billboard Most Played in Jukeboxes with renditions by Joni James #2 and Frankie Lane at #18.
15. “San Antonio Rose” is a song by the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills. An instrumental, it was first released in 1938 as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Wills, with the help of the band would write lyrics for this very popular song and it came out in 1940 and was titled “New San Antonio Rose”. It was his signature song for the rest of his career. Combined there are 298 versions of this song in several languages as well. There was only one cover of the instrumental original by Cliff Bruner and His Boys in 1939 and it would not be done again until 1951 when it was recorded seven times and dozens more since then. Every self respecting Square Dancer and Two-stepping Texan knows how to twirl to this classic.
It is the one with the lyrics “New San Antonio Rose” that is the more popular and it was done by Bing Crosby, released in January of 1941. This was a big deal as most of Country Music at this time, particularly songs from Wills was labeled as Hillbilly Music and not fit for popular consumption. There is a well known rendition by Patsy Cline with the Jordanaires from 1961. Bob Wills was not one that conformed to any standards except his own, and he and his band caused a great bit of upset when they performed this song live on the Grand ole Opry in 1944 and used the instrument called the drums. It is true that drums were banned on the Opry stage. While the song may not be recorded every year there are recent versions by LeAnn Rimes in 2019 and Australian singer Sharon Heaslip in 2020. Give the song a listen, just about anything by Bob Wills will if not move your feet it will lift your spirit.
6. “Riders in the Sky” was written by Stan Jones. He had a Masters Degree in Zoology and was working as a Park guide in Death Valley in 1948. Based on a Native American story, in his own words he put it to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” but in a different tempo. He sang it as a campfire song for some Hollywood Scouts looking for film shooting locations, this led to a career in the movie business. First as a technical adviser and later composing music for John Ford in his movies like The Searchers and Rio Grande. Jones did the Rodeo circuit in his younger days so writing a Cowboy Song came naturally. Jones recorded it himself in 1948 but it was not released until later in 1949. So the first released version, recorded later in 1948 was by Bob Geddins, who was actually an R&B singer/songwriter as well as the founder of several independent record labels. Geddins was a pretty versatile singer so he did the song in what might be described as a Country Blues style and it was titled “Ghost Riders”. The first cover was by Burl Ives, he was another singer with songs in a range of genre. The third time was the charm as Vaughn Munroe‘s 1949 version became a hit song. It was now titled “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)”. It was later recorded by Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Gene Autry and other well known artists all in that same year for a total of thirteen recordings in 1949 alone. Under several different titles but most often as “Ghost Riders In the Sky” the song now has 356 versions.
7. “Always on My Mind” was written by Johnny Christopher, Wayne Carson, Mark James and the first recording was by Brenda Lee in 1971 but her June release was trumped by Gwen McCrae’s that came out in March. The third release of the song was by Elvis Presley, it reached #16 on Billboards Country chart. There are currently 353 versions of this song but none of them has done any better than Willie Nelson’s 1982 released that went to #1 on the Country chart in Canada and the US as well as #5 on the Hot 100. He would win a Grammy Award and so would the Song and the Songwriters. It also won CMA awards in both 1982 and 1983. “Always on My Mind” would be a huge hit for The Pet Shop Boys in 1987, hitting #1 on at least seven International charts including the UK and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
8. “I’m Nine Hundred Miles from Home” is a traditional song first recorded by the legendary Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1924. The song was not recorded again until 1942 when Wade Mainer and Sons of the Mountaineers did and titled it “Old Ruben” this is one of the several alternate names of the song. It is also know in the Bluegrass world as “Train 45”. All variations also have many instrumental versions and it was adapted by Hedy West when she wrote “500 Miles”, which was first released by The Journeymen in 1961. That version has more of Folk feel to it, however there is another popular adaptation that Country star Bobby Bare did in 1963 titled “500 Miles Away from Home“. Staying true to the original melody, folky versions all tolled this song has 353 versions. In case you were curious, The Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) is not related to this song but perhaps the Hedy West “500 Miles” may have inspired the number.
9. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was written by one of the more evocative Songwriters I have ever heard or seen. Jimmy Webb is also the author of “MacArthur Park”, “Galveston”, “Up, Up and Away” and another very big hit to be mentioned later. The song was first recorded by Johnny Rivers who at that time had already posted many top ten hits, however it was not released as a single and only appeared on his 1966 album Changes. This opened the door for Glen Campbell and the best known version with his single which hit #1 in Canada and #2 on the US Country charts. In 1967 he took home three Grammy Awards for this song, this on the same day he earned two for “Gentle on My Mind”. Coincidently Glen Campbell also covered Bobby Bare’s “500 Miles Away from Home” and the #3 song in the previous post “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. Currently there are 351 documented version of this song. There are a large number of instrumentals of this song, and the first one was by the great pianist Floyd Cramer.
10. “I’m So Lonesome” was written by Hank Williams. He charted eight songs in 1949 but this was not one of them. It was the ‘B’ side to “My Bucket’s Got s Hole in it” which peaked at #2. Based on the popularity of a cover by B.J. Thomas that reached #8 on The Hot 100, Williams original was re-released in 1966 and reached #43. As we know many of the most iconic and most covered song were never hits when first released. Hank poured his heart out when he performed this poignant and beautifully sad song. It’s not a surprise to me that it ranks so highly on the list. This woeful tear jerker set the standard for heartbreaking songs. It was first covered by The Jordanaires as The Foggy River Boys in 1950, but not again until Marty Robbins in 1957. Using their usual name this time The Jordanaires were the first of 14 versions in 1966. The song currently has 335 versions in nine languages.
Some other notable covers include; Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Tanya Tucker, The Cowboys Junkies and more recently Sara Evans featuring Old Crow Medicine Show in 2020. Terry Bradshaw (yes the Steelers Quarterback) covered it in 1976 and went to #17 on the Country Singles Chart.